Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Essay: How PDFs Changed My Life and eBook Piracy

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

I'm a twenty-something science fiction/fantasy fan from the Philippines and a decade ago, I'd never imagine myself receiving free books to review (that's not to say I never wished that were the case). This year, through the innovation called the Internet and PDFs, I'm doing just that (of course to be fair, I'm not receiving books by the ton--I already feel fortunate if I get one or two books a month to review *hint* *hint*). In my opinion, one of the biggest hurdles is getting books from either the US or the UK to the Philippines. Aside from the time lag, there's also the shipping costs, which probably costs twice as much as the book itself. So PDFs have made it possible for a fan like me to receive books and review them.

Of course PDFs come with a caveat. Either you're accustomed to reading text on a computer screen or you've invested in a laser printer. I'm more of the former but then again, I've always considered myself "young" and "progressive". That's not to say I can stand staring on a computer screen for four hours straight but then again, I also can't imagine myself reading a book for four hours straight (I need to stretch my legs...). My willingness to receive PDF copies gives me a few advantages. First, I get to review a book as soon as the editor/publisher hits the "send" button. There's no need to wait for the post office to deliver the book, no need to wait until the review copies gets printed by the actual printer. In a few instances, this advantage makes me the first person to publicly review a book (which in itself has its own pros and cons). Second, I don't know how much this figures behind the scenes, but I'd like to think that due to the nature of PDFs, publishers and editors are more than willing to send a no-name reviewer like me copies of their books. After all, it's costing them less effort or money to do so (I'd like to use this time to thank the people who've sent me copies of their books, PDFs or otherwise). Third, on my part, I don't write long, comprehensive book reviews (there are a lot of other sites that do that) but if I were, it'd be a lot easier for me to reference and quote specific passages due to the ability to use the search function. Fourth, if I somehow end up with a hundred review copies, they're not taking up much shelf space (see Matt and other bookworm's dilemmas of finite shelves). At most, they're a few Megabyte in my hard drive and/or flash drive (which also makes them quasi-portable in the sense that I can have multiple copies of the book in various computers/storage devices).

On the side of publishers/editors, again, the biggest asset of PDF is its ease of archiving and distribution. Aside from sending out review copies to book reviewers, competitions and awards are also good publicity for your book and unfortunately, the requirements of some competitions can be too steep, especially if a book potentially fits several categories. Jonathan Strahan has an example of such a scenario. If worse come to worse, you can take comfort with the idea that no trees died in churning out this particular copy of the book and you can channel your dead-tree copies to actually earning a profit for you and your authors (i.e. selling the books at conventions!). That's not to say there are no disadvantages to sending out PDFs to people, especially people you don't trust. There's always the risk of piracy after all.

I'll now diverge and move on to the topic of book piracy. Larry at Of Blog of the Fallen has a blog entry on the subject matter. For me, if I were a publisher or an editor, one of the things I'd fear most is having my books pirated, especially if I'm rampant in sending out PDF copies. As a reviewer, I don't think it needs to be stated that one shouldn't distribute the PDFs one receives from publishers and editors. But I wonder, are there unethical book reviewers who distribute their review copies out on the Internet?

Scouring the sites, torrents, message boards, and chat rooms where pirated eBooks can be found, the most common format for such material actually isn't PDF. Based from a random file list, .html/htm and .txt seem to be the most pirated formats (although PDFs follow suit and is ahead of .lit, .rtf, and .doc files). The problem with PDFs is that they're relatively huge files (compared to other text-only documents) when most readers are only interested in the actual text rather than the layout and artwork (comics and illustrated books are another matter of course but .cbr or .cbz is the most common format for the former). And following the laws of bandwidth (which gave rise to photo formats like JPEG), the files that will likely get distributed are those with a smaller and compressed file size. Now as far as the logistics of pirating a book goes, I suspect the pirates use an OCR software and scanner rather than some evangelist fan typing the entire document. Theoretically you could copy/paste an entire novel from a PDF into a .txt or .html file but I doubt that's what pirates are actually doing.

What I have noticed however are the types of titles that get circulated by the pirates. And more often than not, the books that pirates circulate are those written by popular and mass-market authors: Stephen King, J. K. Rowling, Robert Jordan, etc. Occasionally, a mid-list or new author might develop a cult following but the titles that tend to be pirated are popular ones. (So for authors, it's a weird situation of being popular enough that you're pirated--you're just not earning a cent from it--while those that aren't pirated probably need the most exposure.) Incidentally, winning a big award such as the Nebula or the Hugo also lands you a place in the eBook pirate distribution. Perhaps the irony of piracy is that a lot of good books and stories are out there, available in the publisher's website for download, yet they're not being distributed by the pirates. I mean I'm looking at Night Shade Books's downloads section as well as that of Small Beer Press yet those are the same titles that aren't being carried by pirates. (Perhaps this reinforces the mass-market titles gets pirated theory?) Another thing that I observed is that some of the pirated short stories are readily available from the Internet (drawing from online magazines like Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld). Perhaps this appeals to the hoarding mentality of a pirate fan? I mean how difficult is it to simply visit Clarkesworld and read for yourself the story there? The site even has a ShareThis button and I'm sure the publishers appreciate the extra hits to the site instead of downloading a pirated copy of a text that's readily available.

Not to be hypocritical (it's hard to imagine that the Creative Commons license didn't exist until a few years ago), a few years ago, I did download some pirated eBooks. My reasoning back then was scarcity: I couldn't find those books here in the Philippines. Despite being reprinted (and going out of print) by White Wolf for example, I couldn't find any of Michael Moorcock's Elric stories so I settled for pirated files. Not that I actually got to read them, merely having that "hoarding" mentality that I'll one day read them. (I've acquired Del Rey's new reprints with the cool John Picacio covers since then but I've still yet to read them. Same goes for the UK Fantasy Masterworks series.) There was also a time when I was having trouble finding sets of Terry Pratchett's work (the bookstores are flooded with his work now) so I did download some of his work but never got to read them--except one time a few months later (which by then the bookstore had some Pratchett novels) and after reading it (oh the woes of reading a Pratchett Discsworld novel in HTML!), I felt guilty and bought the actual book. Last I checked, there are still some pirated files on my computer, mostly books that have gone out of print. For example, I bought in a library sale a few years ago an assortment of Fred Saberhagen's Book of Swords and Book of Lost Swords. Unfortunately, I'm missing some of the middle books and these are books that as far as I know, are out of print, save for the digital files of eBook piracy. The other use I have of pirated eBooks is so that I don't have to transcribe copies of stories that I actually own. I'm part of a critiquing group that meets twice a month and we tackle various short stories. Our moderator requests copies of stories from authors and editors but there are times when we want to discuss stories from deceased authors and while one member in the group might own a copy of the book/magazine in which the story was published, disseminating that story to the other members before the actual session is difficult (once, our sessions were held and supported by a local bookstore so the bookstore would carry the books of the author we were discussing at the time and I remember emptying their stocks of Aimee Bender when we tackled her short stories).

These days, I wonder why not delete the illegal files that I previously downloaded. I mean I never read them anyway and I don't think I'll ever read them: there are lots of new books that occupy my time (i.e. I buy more books than I have time to read). As a reviewer, I don't distribute the files that I receive although I'd like someone to tackle the ethics of putting up ARC copies up for auction on eBay (JM McDermott cites reasons why such actions draw his ire). And quite frankly, the books that I'm really interested in reading and promoting are the books that pirates aren't interested in (apparently my tastes aren't mass-market fare). When it comes to supporting your favorite authors, nothing beats actually purchasing their book but when it comes to evangelizing their works, good old book reviews and word-of-mouth (and when I say word-of-mouth, I really mean the various networking tools such as ShareThis or or Twitter or -insert favorite Internet tool here-) seems the most effective method. It doesn't matter if you're from a first-world country or a third-world country: it's an even playing field when it comes to the Internet.


Ruth D~ said...

Interesting. Never thought of reviewing an entire book as a pdf file. I'm an editor at The internet Review of Books, we've found the cost of mailing books publishing houses send us to reviewers outside of the US,to be higher than our finances allow, and yet we often need just such "outside" perspective on a particular book.

Proposition? Would you be interested in writing a feature article for one of our IRB issues? Let me know.

Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Speaking of PDFs, would you be interested in one for A Field Guide to Surreal Botany? If so, please send me your email address, and I'll let you know when it's ready for viewing.

I haven't gone the extra step to make the PDF completely free to download and distribute, mostly since I have 49 authors and I'd have to get permission from everyone. However, the eBook is free to pretty much any interested reviewer or blogger. As Cory Doctorow is fond of saying, the problem is obscurity, not piracy.

Jason Erik Lundberg said...

Sorry, my eddress is

becomearobot said...

A 3mb PDF vs a 1mb HTML file is an insignificant difference to people with high-speed Internet. HTML and TXT are more popular in the eBook world (be it piracy or eBook friendly publishers) because they're reflowable (they keep the content and page formatting separate). A PDF uses fixed pages, with specific text on each single page, as well as headers, footers, and page numbers. HTML is vastly superior for reformatting and converting to different eBook formats like Mobipocket and ePub. If someone has an eReader device like Amazon Kindle or Sony Reader, PDF is the worst possible format to obtain.

By the way, if you haven't already, you should ditch the laser printer and get an eReader. :-)

becomearobot said...

Sorry, I'm an idiot and misread about the laser printer. :-)

Fabien said...

I made a book.
It has my name on it and the title I chose. I am proud of it. It is one of the few stories I vowed to finish and I did.
Buckyball is a first person narrative. James Pissola tells the story of how one night of partying with his best friend in South Beach changed his life. Listening to a specific song always transports him back to the same time and place, which happens to be the Miamillennium nightclub in Miami. These flashback moments are called life-turns and James claims to have lived over one hundred and seventy-one of them, some lasting between 13 and 26 years.
In order to make Buckyball concrete I had to venture into the realm of (hard swallow) vanity publishing.
It wasn't my ego that ultimately pushed me in that direction. It was an editor's reject letter that injected in me the confidence I needed to vainly go in that direction.
An editor had actually read my entire manuscript. She had even liked it. It wasn't a good fit for her publishing needs but it was good enough for her to read through, finish it and positively comment on it.
Buckyball was great fun to read. What an imaginative and smart idea! And it holds together well, and fails to become repetitive, as it so easily could have done. James is a compelling character, and you create great sympathy for him and his plight. Congratulations on a fine achievement! Alana Wilcox, Senior Editor, Coach House Books.
I naively celebrated by purchasing a publishing package on the internet.
I made a book and it was dead on arrival.
It's not the e-publishing house's fault, it's just that my ego has a budget. I've contacted several reviewers, sorry no vanity press books. I understand. Barnes and Noble has a great program where you can send them your novel for consideration for shelf space in their stores but my book is not eligible. I would have to purchase a 'book sellers return program' from my e-publishing house for $799 just to be considered. That's not an option. So I find myself reading articles about how to self promote your book.
Start small, start locally. I live in a rural French Canadian village where the market for English speaking novels is zero.
Another suggestion in the how to promote guide lines was to blog your way to success. I wasn't convinced. It seemed hypocritical and self serving to embark on a journey where you try to shove your book on sites where you hope someone will bite. Having never blogged or even followed a blog I surfed. It did not take me long to find out that I was not the only writer on the block. I've followed a one way street down a dead end. I'm throwing mud at the wall in front of me. You happen to be on the other side. Sorry. At this point I do not know if my novel is good or bad. It does not help that my target audience are guys who'd rather watch a movie than read a book. Shot myself in both feet with one bullet with that tag line.
I will gladly send anyone who wants to read BUCKYBALL a pdf copy.
All in all I wish anyone and everyone who reads this the best of the best of success in all of your endeavours.
Sincerely, Fabien Roy